A couple weeks ago I hit a point in my life where I had to admit bottom was near. I wasn’t strung out on heroin, my friends weren’t planning an intervention, and there wasn’t a parade of sunken eyed hookers punching in and out. Instead, I was sitting down to write, depressed, fighting off suicidal thoughts, and facing a Pikachu juice glass full of Irish whisky.
You see, the kids/wife decided my whisky glasses would make a good vase and a good paint brush caddy. So, before I decided alcohol wasn’t helping my sinking into the black, I decided the only logical solution was to grab the kids’ Pokemon glass and fill it with Bushmill’s. Not to diss Bushmill’s, but even in my low state I wasn’t about to pour real scotch into something adorned with a Japanese lightning mouse.
Sitting there, staring at his royal yellowness, feeling the warmth in my chest and sweet tingle in my mouth that blended Irish whisky finished in sherry casks brings (that’s Bushmill’s kids, ask for it by name), it hit me. This wasn’t rock bottom. But it was a roadside sign, warning there would be no rest stop before I get there. I had a weird response to this realization. I laughed a sardonic, self-deprecating laugh. How could I not? The sadness and futility of my life was being highlighted by such an absurd, asinine consequence: pouting in my basement at 38 years old drinking whisky from Pickachu. It was the sort of thing I would have loved if it had been portrayed in a Wes Anderson movie.
This feeling, this total awareness of one’s own poor judgment and poor taste, signifying not only a situation to be endlessly humiliated about but signs of further trouble to come, was the same thing I felt when I paid good money to go see The Grudge.
Remaking The Grudge was a harmless enough idea. America was seeing a groundswell of interest in things Japanese, thanks in part to the remake of The Ring, anime and manga going partially mainstream, and thousands of internet rats bored with Star Wars. The vogue thing at this point was to feign knowledge of anything “J” prior to its American bastardization. So The Ring? Good I guess, but Ringu was sooooooooooooo much better (the 13 o’s is crucial you guys).
Now, 2004 me would never admit this but Ju-On, the property mined for The Grudge, was a pile of confusing Japanese nonsense beyond the usual detached nonlinear cluster-fukku of Japanese cinema. And it had sequels. With the same “plot.” Something dishonorable and shameful has occurred and tainted a residence, and the poltergeist lashes out to satisfy the lack of justice. If you watch the original, here are two things to note: the story is told in a non-linear fashion, and pale Noh-esque Japanese children are bowel emptying creepy. If I may give a third bit of advice, knowing Japanese (or having a copy with “good” translation) actually hurts the enjoyment of this movie.
Back to the Hollywood version. Creepy raven-black hair, pale ghost children, Japan, and Jennifer Love-Hewitt… I have to see this. Only, it wasn’t JLH, as I mistakenly thought. It was Sarah Michelle Gellar. Buffy. Vampire Slayer. Total pussy in this movie. Oh, and also a horror trope of her own for being in some movies that nearly ruined horror for me while saving it at the box office. And let me be frank, she is no Daphne. I have 38 years and counting of Daphne fantasies and seeing her in regalia on screen as my ginger-queen didn’t send even one shiver up the old flagpole. (Keep an eye out for my erotic fanfic about Daphne and me fighting ghost pirates soon).
So this realization started me out at “disappointed.” Here I was, young(er), dragging a non-horror fan to see a remake of a Japanese movie made no sense, hoping Hollywood would make it lucid, and realizing the leading lady was not my brunette, chesty dream girl but SMG instead. (By the way guys, per Wikipedia, SMG has kanji and dragonfly tattoos. What a Suicide Girl we have here! I imagine she’s planning on getting a gecko on the top of her foot, Sublime sun around her navel, and a rose on her ankle soon too. And butterfly at 1 o’clock from Napa Valley). Total set up for a happy ending, right? Let’s go to the tape.
The premise of The Grudge is that when you die, if it is associated with extreme anger and injustice, that the spirit lingers and menaces anyone that decides to set show-less foot on the tatami mat where you met your grisly end. And rather than stack chairs, speak through white noise TV static, or menace the family with a devil pig this spirit just does really weird stuff like get in your hair and drive others to murder. Carol Anne would have been screwed.
So Sam Raimi starts off by… wait, he “produced.” The only thing Raimi about this movie is his brother playing the nerd boss. Here’s what was said in the pitch “Let’s just let the same visionary who did the whole damn repetitive and convoluted Japanese franchise adapt this for an American audience.” Nothing of this movie is adding up and the film hasn’t even started.
So Takashiu Shimizu starts off by giving us white text on black screen explaining how ghosts work in Japan. You see, things like latitude and language and hemispheres totally change the way the universe works. You, and your Western education feel pretty superior but totally don’t understand the bigger picture, which is the fact that there isn’t just one type of bullshit idea of supernatural/spirituality… there are multiple realms that are all tied to specific geographical regions. Just like physics, just like math, just like biology.
The self-hate I am feeling right now is filling the Pikachu glass. Anyway, death…curse…manifests in place of death… consumes all who encounter with its fury… you get the set up? Because if you don’t buy the premise, the rest won’t make sense. Actually, it doesn’t matter if you buy it or not.
I understand that Kubrick wanted to explain the mechanism of haunting and the supernatural world explicitly on place-cards before the Shining started. And how cars work. And who was going to live. And how the others would die. And what the ending meant. But his studio talked him out of it and said “trust your audience.” He relented. Kudos to Shimizu-sama for not falling for that old trap. Horror is hard to grasp, the audience needs led and explained all the way through it. As a matter of fact, I believe Hitchcock himself said “Horror is 90% exposition and 10% explanation.” That’s why every horror film released since Scream has been a masterpiece and the old ones are terrible.
Oh look, the actual movie is starting and I hate myself already. My wife is squirming just from the foreboding music and the cheap effect of changing the word “death” to red and making it fade slower that the rest of the text in the oh-so enlightening prologue. “I am going to hate this,” is all I can think. And I did. A lot. Here is a crash course of my grievances.
The rage of the aggressor is so strong that the spirits of the victims are mobilized to curse a locale? Wouldn’t the victims be benevolent, trying to right the wrongs? This would be a logical rule. I’ll talk more about rules later, but already my brain is screaming. Next stop, Americans in Japan. Lots of them. And apparently the curse is retarded for tormenting Americans. But not exclusively, its an open relationship. Again, rules. The movie is told in non-linear vignettes, and if my memory is worth a crap the US version is actually a little easier on the dome than the original. It tries to play out a full scene before time traveling. But the last chronological scene plays first.
Vignette one. Bill freaking Pullman you guys. What the hell? There are two “big” named actors in this movie. Bill is one. And he’s tagging Rosa Blasi, whose mountainous breasts grace the opening scene. The fact they stay tenuously restrained within her pure white (keep track of my mentions of the color white, make a drinking game of it. May I suggest Bushmill’s Black Bush?!) tank top is the first of many scrotum-blasting disappointments to come. I’m usually not a fan of excessive gore or nudity, but this movie needed to give me something for my $9.
Anyway, Bill kills himself immediately. Spoiler, I guess. It’s a metaphor for his career. Did a ghost drive him over the edge? Nope. I think nope anyway. His troubled mind longed for oblivion. Hey, I felt the exact same way less than 14 days ago! Maybe I wasn’t bumming out about my dead end life and missed opportunities but instead am victim to a Japanese curse!!! We find out later in a bookend (TROPE!) that his WHITE hotness is the cause of the whole damn curse.
Rosa’s near silent reaction to his suicide means she was either hired only because for her undeniably perfect body and face not her acting chops or that she was only with Bill because she required only WHITE cock and Bill was the only game in town. Bill does seem sort of irresistible to the plot of this movie. Actually this isn’t very fair to Rosa, as the writers are equally to blame, as is the director. “Oh my, I do believe my husband has suddenly jumped to his death.” God she’s stunning. Also, dead Bill on the pavement nearly bloodless and comically akimbo is something that I can only compare to a scene from The Happening.
Vignette 2. Japanese person in a Japanese house; a rare sight we are led to believe (remember, we KEPT the Japanese director, and it’s a Japanese script). The pretty young Japanese nanny/caregiver Yoko/Yuko (her name is hard to remember in this movie) starts to hear noise in the house. The unkempt state of the home tells us that obviously the family had just moved in.
The scenes slow crawl scenes (which are in every vignette) are actually very tense and unnerving, but fail to ever provide a satisfying pay-off. Not everything needs to end in jump scares. This isn’t basic cable TV. Atmosphere can and should be just that. Atmosphere. Build tension. See also The Haunting. Back to the crawl. Yoko has a lighter on her person and she uses it to explore the dark closet that leads to the darker attic The effect of flame on a panicked face is great, but this is cheap forced filmmaking. She dies for the movie’s sins. Spoiler. One of the Noh ghosts gets her and pulls her into the attic. The scene set-up, execution, and resolution occur in less than 5 minutes. No need to take your Ritalin, horror fan. Cut to black.
Wait. A GHOST KILLED HER. I am already fighting my inner asshole skeptic. Does the Ju-On curse mechanism (which works only in Japan) kill people or drive people to kill themselves? I’m starting to think that all this afterlife stuff seems a little farfetched… The ghosts do what they want apparently. Except for the fact that they continually “try” to kill SMG and manage only to harass her. Spoiler. Even as we learn in the sequel (ugh) SMG lives after what should have been a tidy end. These ghosts are impotent.
Vignette 3. Only 8 minutes into the film. All-new cast. More white people! Yay! Are we in Riverdale? And we have SMG, in her morning glory, pulling her fleeing beta-male back into bed. Perky, giddy, and the worst Kathryn Merteuil ever. Want to fight about this? Two words. Amy Adams. Proof there is a God. At least in the Iowa version of supernatural. We are treated to more well contained flesh and bad kissing and the plot refuses to concede a direction. So you’ll explain everything and everyone’s motivation but not what is happening. Oh, and they imply she can rock his world in 10 minutes. What a keeper.
In one of the half-efforted attempts to illustrate the alienation and disconnect beween SMG and Japan, we have a scene where her and cool dumb guy boyfriend stop to peep at a graveyard/shrine. I hate the tourism aspect of the “American in Nippon” that creeps into every such movie. Peering over the stone wall of a shrine to talk loudly and watch two natives burn incense and pray to departed loved ones, while lighting up a cig… nice work America. I’d like to think even when suffering massive culture-shock that I could avoid being a purposeful douche of this caliber. Some things are eternal. Just like in my college dorm, you don’t mess with someone on the toilet, while they are eating, or while at a graveyard.
The real plot starts at 12 minutes in but we are already in vignette 3. Does that make any sense to you? Part of SMG’s work study job is to be caretaker for an elderly woman with dementia since her boss (Super white Ted Raimi) can’t get in contact with her coworker who was assigned to the case (oh no you guys, that’s the Yoko lady who got killed!). That’s right. Whites to the rescue! It’s our burden to bear, you are welcome world. See also The Last Samurai. The woman lives with her son and his wife. They just can’t handle her properly, since the husband is a high-powered white businessman and the wife is a depressed mess of a white stay at home in a foreign land. SMG is tasked with tracking down the woman’s house. She hits the streets with a Xerox flyer, as if she’s looking for a lost dog. Or inu. The filmmaker goes out of his way to show that there is distrust for this gaijin. She’s a foreigner, but her heart is gold! Undaunted by freaking out a Japanese girl that is terrified by her Caucasian-ness, she pressed on to the lady’s house. These colors don’t run.
No one answers the door so she barges in to find a trashed home. Literal trash. Litter, moving boxes. They didn’t even get unpacked, but I noticed the TV is hooked up. It was 2004 so I assume that the American family was getting satellite feeds of Joey or The 4400, to keep up with the Joneses. Anyway crazy grandma is there malnourished and alone. Crazy and white. She’s completely crazy so there is no communication and is helpless. Did I mention she’s crazy? The film does. Of all these characters grandma is my favorite so far. She just sits there and waits for SMG to leave her the hell alone. SMG is a true angel on the level of Roma Downey, so she washes grandma, puts her back to bed, and takes it upon herself to clean up the house. She doesn’t even sigh, tweet about the injustice of it, or make a rude comment under her breath! This is why Tokyo has opened its doors to college aged white Americans to come and do things. Or stuff. I’m still not sure what business she works for.
She finds the closet that leads to the attic. Oh yeah, like in chapter/vignette 2!!! Yeah, well its taped up. Like “masking tape” tape. From the outside! Is this supposed to be weird? It wasn’t done very meticulously so maybe grandma did it. If this had been alluded to, I would concede that it would have been unsettling enough to have made it a shot. Or was it the ghost? But the ghost is inside the closet! So creepy, right?! Nope.
She explores on. Keep in mind this is as much her house as it is her country or her role (it totally should be JLH!!!), so she investigates. Why not? She’s white, you guys! Just when common human courtesy and respect for other people’s property (not OPP dear reader, that’s different), the sound of a newborn chatting mixed with a cat in heat triggers her desire to investigate. Without Fred or Thelma. Alone, in face of common sense and self-preservation. Ladies and gentleman, I call trope.
She snoops. Oh! Look! A family picture, let’s peek. Lady, man, young child, and black cat. Picture is menacingly mangled. Oooooooh! What an eerie piece of ephemera! Snoop snoop snoop, then grandma talks. She’s bothered and a ghost that looks like the chick from Ringu, Marceline the Vampire Queen, and a zombie appears and cut to black. But only after a reaction shot that not only doesn’t say “I saw a ghost!” but doesn’t say “I’ve been in horror movies before!”
Look, Internet; being a scream queen is an art, perhaps more honored and cherished than anything man has ever accomplished. Because women accomplished it. SMG is pissing all over that art. End of vignette. The movie is 23 minutes in. Three stories, three sets of characters, zero sense. This segment, from the pointwhere she was given the task up until the ghost/jump-scare (second of those by the way) was half that time. It fails as a narrative and as an anthology. You could save yourself the next hour and put in Creepshow.
Vignette 4 begin! White people are buying the house! Japanese realtor paired with a cute white one! Whites are everywhere! Because teaching Japanese to speak English is impossible, the realtor rambles on in Nihongo while the family doesn’t seem to understand a word that isn’t translated by the other woman. No, wait! Shame on me for assuming! That lady who was with the realtor is the white man’s sister. The white dude, who we will call Matt, is bringing his wife, sister, and batshit crazy mom to Tokyo because his job demanded it. GOOD WHITE BUSINESSMEN ARE OF SUCH GRAVE IMPORTANCE HIS PRESENCE IS DEMANDED AT ALL COSTS!!!
This movie is making all sorts of sense, so I remember I started drinking from my smuggled-in beer can. In my defense, the realtor is speaking Japanese, and the sister is translating. This includes telling these filthy dogs to remove their shoes. To point out that they are oblivious to the super-weird but common Japanese customs, like taking shows off in the house, not using soy sauce on white rice, and all about Ju-On’s. Sheesh. In case you are easily confused, we time travelled. This is how grandma ended up in this house. She was crazy before the house, so at least we know this curse-ghost doesn’t cause Alzheimer’s. Pfizer, stop developing the Grudgecillin now.
Grandma goes exploring in the five seconds the homebuyers blink. She’s ascended the stairs and entered a closed room and is staring at what was presumably the scene of the original violence. Spooky atmosphere, daughter goes exploring to finds her, they stand side by side and stare into the abyss… or closet. Grandma loves the house you guys! We’ll take it. Even if the realtor sneaks into the bathroom to empty the tub, which is full of black water and a black haired ghost. Spoiler. Jump scare. House sold. Another Century 21 agent in Tokyo gets his man. Cut to black. GOD, LET IT ROLL CREDITS HERE!
Everyone is moved in. I kid you not, the whole damn family is wearing white!!! White robe, white shirt, grandma in white nightie…. Sister is nowhere to be seen. No one is at ease in the house but the stoic duty driven Matt. The wife, being the weaker sex, is bothered that grandma is disturbed. Not adjusting well to Tokyo, she gets withdrawn and… OH MY GOODNESS! A black cat in the house, so weird! You know what they say about black cats! (I think it’s an American cat because it said meow not nya). She follows the cat, hears noises, assumes that it’s someone in the house. Not the cat. The cat that doesn’t belong to them and isn’t supposed to be there, and that she just followed up the stairs. Two pale hands reach and grab the cat and run for an upstairs bedroom. She follows it. Alone. TROPE!!! Door slams. Jump-cut scare. Cut to black.
At the theater my wife is hating this movie by this point. Reviewing it again, I remember her saying “this is stupid.” She’s a complete wimp, hates tension in movies, and is unnerved by the slightest horror. Psycho kept her up for two nights. She didn’t say “this is weird” or “this is creepy “or “I’m scared” or “can I go down on you in the theater” (I’m married to Alanis)… she said “this is stupid.” This is the “last rest stop” sign I talked about earlier. From here, an already lame movie spirals into incomprehensible nonlinear rubbish.
Vignette 5. Actually this is vignette 2.5 as we time travel again. Matt is just returning home from work. The house is a mess. No one is there to greet him. That wife of his is so going to get it! Wait, there’s Grandma. And she’s not talking. Lights aren’t working, and Jen is in bed but isn’t dead and is catatonic from fear or something. If only he’d not stopped by the Soapland on the way home (look it up, trust me).
The Noh kid ghost and the cat are at her bedside. If this is a ghost of rage why is she alive? Wait, she’s not. Heart attack. Dead. Spoiler. Why was she back in her bed? Doesn’t matter. Ghost gets Matt. On a jump scare. Quick cut to black screen. Holy Moses. So the ghost mortally scared Jen, drug her to her bed, and waited at her side for hubby to come home, then kills him immediately. From fear? They never say. Meanwhile, crazy grandma is untouched?
Vignette 6 (3.5). Semi-linear plot advancement, SMG’s boss is there looking for his employee. White guy. Haven’t seen a living Japanese guy since the bungling realtor. He sneaks in what would be a back door and finds G-ma doing her thing (she is sort of boring now I think about it. She got paid for this role? Let King Diamond take a stab at that character) and SMG convulsing. Guess Marceline didn’t kill SMG after all. This ghost has the track record of a Stormtrooper marksman. “Imagine if you will, a ghostly curse manifested from rage and hatred so powerful and pure that it lingers after the violence and death it caused is over. This pure spectral hatred lashes out at all that encounter it and about 40% of the time kills!” Nice.
Here The Grudge introduces two Tokyo detectives and becomes Japanese police procedural. The guys find a picture of Matt and his sister and immediately recognize her as working in Tokyo. Dudes, I know she’s a cute white girl but there has to be, what, a few hundred people in Tokyo? You narrowed that down pretty fast… I thought China had the Supercops? Oh, and they find a lower jaw. In the attic. Through the closet. No one dies. Quick cut to black but they forgot to do a string stab. Even the editor is getting bored of this crap. So the ghosts are tied to the house because pieces of their bodies are still there? Public servants get a pass from the curse because all the ghosts want is for the truth to be found? Nothing is making sense at all.
Vignette 7 opens on a healthy looking SMG in a hospital bed. Her makeup looks almost as good as her hair. Boyfriend comes to console her. Says Grandma died in her sleep. SMG doubts the official story. Deduces it’s the house. Because she’s seen so many horror movies I bet, because there sure as hell haven’t been any clues to motivation up until this point. Shortest vignette ever!
Vignette 8. Tough and dedicated Susan is hard at work late into the evening. Oh wait, it’s the sister! She’s a detective? I can’t imagine what else it would be with the stack of paperwork and files in front of her. Lawyer? Was she in Japan already? How could she expect to help her brother with Grandma if her job is so demanding? She’s apparently the only one in an enormous office building late at night. The eerie atmosphere thing starts again, is something stalking her? Yup. It’s the ghost. You hear it. And it makes her phone do weird stuff. And electricity obeys it. Then you see it doing its Ring impression again by sort of backwards creeping up the stairs several flights down. I am so over this movie by now I am only half paying attention and sort of want to see someone get gored by a unicorn or something.
She flees the stairwell and shuts the door. SMG was wrong, it can’t be the house. And I was wrong, the ghosts aren’t interested in killing people, they just like chasing them until they die. Some just don’t run. Like Grandma. And Matt? The ghosts are the Japanese, nonsensical, ghost version of internet bullies. Then the ghost grabs her key somehow for some reason. I thought the door was shut. Anyway, I blinked and may have missed four vignettes.
The ghost just stares at her through the door. Is it trying to communicate? Is it so filled with rage and grudging-grudgeness that it frozen in hatred?! She suddenly can’t speak Japanese well and demands the night watchman go investigate. Somehow this scene makes him look like the idiot. Investigate he does, without hesitation or understanding what she said, because English. She wants help, why would she want him to investigate and not just escort her to her car? White girls…
At this point I can’t handle the movie any more. It is half over and I don’t know how I made it through it the first time. HALF. OVER. The ghosts continue their illogical “revenge” spree. Susan the sister is attacked and killed. SMG’s nerdy white boss is killed by Yoko who was possessed by the ghosts (the biggest break in logic yet? It is hard to keep score). The ghosts start teasing SMG but not doing anything to her. She drives the Mystery Machine and researches the house’s history. Not really with the van, but I’m still bitter. She finds out a family was murdered there. She contacts the police detective who says he lost several officers to the curse. She confides in her boyfriend and he sets out to set the world right by confronting the house. I know. The detective also has testicles so thinks fighting the house is the best way to win. I know. The end-boss syndrome. Thanks Playstation.
So in no particular order Japanese man kills family, something about the wife being infatuated with a big eyed white man teaching her class. Hey! It kind of makes sense now! That was Pullman! Hubby gets all testicled-up himself and decides “the bitch is mine or no one’s” and kills her. Then the kid, just for good measure. Can’t have that kid squealing to the Supercops. Also, the cat. What? Then, since all his loose ends are tied up… he kills himself. What (again)?! And they become a family of really Japanese ghosts. Who make a curse. And hold a grudge. The Grudge. And are tied to the house. But they don’t stay in the house. And bother people who only marginally have anything to do with the house. And leave crazy elders alone. Because of rage and violence you guys.
The detective douses the house in gasoline and is going to burn it down. He gets killed. SMG has hallucinations that fill in some of the plot holes presumably (but don’t) and rushes to save her hip but not so sharp white guy boyfriend from the house. Too late, he’s comatose (but not dead, because th ghosts can’t decide what it is they do). Then a ghost appears. Boyfriend dies, SMG starts the fire, ends up in the hospital again (I hope Japan has Obamacare or she’s going to get dropped from whatever insurance foreign student/nannies have to get). Oh and the house didn’t burn down. Because The Grudge. And she visits her boyfriend’s body. Yep, ghost appears. Apparently hitching a ride on boyfriend. Or not, since there are no rules to this mess. Jump scare I guess. Cut to black I guess.
I’d love to blame this movie for my depression nine years later. It would be a delicious revenge on the film. But the fact remains my real life depression comes from circumstances happening out of control that I have to pay consequences for. Some of them are related to seemingly arbitrary choices I made, some of them have to be due to being in the wrong place at wrong time, and others just plain seem like the universe is out to ruin my life.
Which is why this movie made me feel the same way years before. There are no rules. Everything just happens and the fact it happens in the mysterious lost world of Japan is supposed to be fog enough to cover the fact there is no structure to what is happening. I would argue that the message the film makes is Japan is a terrible place and you’d be better off staying in good old U.S. of A.
There has to be an agreement with the audience. Freddy can only get you in dreams for instance. Jason’s mom kills kids that are engaging in lewd acts or represent the youth that ignored her son. Having ghosts that are tied to the house would have been a good start. Having the ghosts attack (with malice and rage) those associated with living in the house would have been cool. Maybe happy families anger the ghosts. Or white people. Any of that would have helped the movie immeasurably. Even in movies that present you with a terror that knows no boundaries, there is an agreement with the audience that there is some logic at work in the universe. Even if the protagonists don’t survive, the point is immaterial. There is a shared responsibility in film and the writers and director failed to hold up their end, leaving me feel as cold and trapped as I do at 38 with 30 years of crushing student loan debt and a job that doesn’t respect or fulfill me. We are told our hard work will result in good jobs that result in money that result in a good life. Depression comes when we find out that handshake agreement is broken.
My personal loathing was at its pinnacle when I emptied that Pikachu glass and I couldn’t turn back. All I could do is laugh at myself and seek help. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to become a terminal alcoholic raining sadness on Twitter and Facebook and making my quiet desperation a shout. Now, having seen this movie a third time, all I can do is laugh. I haven’t ventured much into J-horror (or Korean, or Chinese, or Vietnamese for that matter) since The Grudge. Even remakes. I feel like I put down something that was only going to speed my undoing. Now in 2013, I can look back and say that Pokemon whisky and The Grudge forced me to become a better person.
-Carl Smith @cbcamarillo, aka Camarillo Brillo, firstname.lastname@example.org-